NCAA Tournament 2021 Predictions: Breaking Down Experts' Picks
Bracketology is an inexact science, but that doesn't stop anyone from trying. Every March, people fill out brackets for the NCAA men's basketball tournament only to watch some 13th seed from a mid-major conference blow it all up in the first round.
It's one of the true joys of March Madness: busted brackets.
But some people make a living on predicting the unpredictable. College basketball experts take their best swing at brackets just like sports fans around the country, though they have considerably more insight into the 68 teams that make up the field.
This is a strange year to make picks. Teams have played a varying number of games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some only played a handful of conference opponents. Picking upsets is never easy, but this year it might be impossible since we have no idea how good or bad some of these teams are heading into the Big Dance.
If you're looking for assistance in filling out your bracket, we've compiled some predictions from college basketball experts. If you win your bracket pool, make sure to thank them. And if you lose, well, then you can blame one of them.
Here are five experts' top picks for the 2021 NCAA tournament.
Seth Davis, The Athletic and CBS Sports
Seth Davis favors the top seeds everywhere except the East Region, where he picks No. 2 Alabama to reach the Final Four. It's easy to see why. Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed in the West, enters the tournament with a 26-0 record and will try to become the first team to win the championship with a perfect record since Indiana in 1976. Since then, only four other teams have entered the tournament with an undefeated record, and each failed to go all the way. Davis thinks this is the year, picking the Zags to beat Illinois, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, to hoist the trophy in April.
Davis tabs No. 6 San Diego State to defeat No. 11 Syracuse, No. 3 West Virginia and No. 2 Houston en route to an Elite Eight appearance.
The Aztecs are an experienced group with four seniors and a junior in their starting five. They're led by senior forward Matt Mitchell (15.4 points per game) and senior guard Jordan Schakel and his ridiculous 46.7 three-point shooting percentage, which is third-best in the country. But any discussion of San Diego State needs to start with its ability to defend. The program boasts the nation's sixth-best field-goal defense (38.7), and the Aztecs are 11th in defensive efficiency.
The two biggest upsets in Davis' bracket are Colgate and UC Santa Barbara. Colgate, the 14th seed in the South, benefited from some inflated numbers to post a high NET ranking but played a limited Patriot League schedule. Picking the Raiders over No. 3 Arkansas is a bold move, but Davis said he likes their run-and-gun style and their three-point defense. As well, Colgate shoots 40.2 percent from behind the arc, which is the third-best mark in the country.
Davis picks No. 12 UC Santa Barbara to make the Sweet 16 before losing to Gonzaga. The Gauchos limited their nonconference schedule to Southern California games to minimize their travel and exposure to COVID-19. This would be a huge win for the Big West, whose profile rose after UC Irvine knocked off Kansas State in the 2019 NCAA tournament.
The heavy hitters dominate this bracket. Davis has some chaos in the early rounds with Colgate and UC Santa Barbara's wins, along with picking No. 13 Ohio to defeat No. 4 Virginia and No. 12 Winthrop to beat Villanova. Otherwise, the favorites are favored in the end.
Gary Parrish, CBS Sports
Parrish sees the Final Four playing out the same way Davis does: No. 1 Gonzaga defeats No. 2 Alabama, No. 1 Illinois beats No. 1 Baylor and the Zags take it all. It's a predictable bracket as most of the high seeds win each game. Parrish's bracket is heavy on Big Ten wins—three teams from college basketball's top conference make the Elite Eight, and five reach the Sweet 16.
Like Davis, Parrish chose the Gauchos to upset No. 5 Creighton. The Bluejays showed some vulnerabilities in the Big East tournament, falling to Georgetown in a stunning title game. Santa Barbara's success has been driven by guard JaQuori McLaughlin, who transferred during his sophomore season at Oregon State after a standout freshman year. He had 22 points in the Big West title game against UC Irvine.
Parrish picks No. 11 Michigan State to win its First Four game against UCLA and then knock off No. 6 BYU. It's not often the selection committee pairs power-conference teams in the play-in round, but elites weren't very elite this year, and it adds some intrigue to these games.
Parrish likes the safe bets. He takes the high seeds and foresees little drama from the small schools. But who can blame him? Only once has a No. 16 seed defeated a No. 1 seed, and a 15th seed has only defeated a No. seed eight times. If you're looking to play it safe, use this bracket as a template.
Jay Bilas, ESPN
The ESPN analyst didn't fill out a bracket, per se, but he summarized each game and its projected outcome, right down to the Final Four and the championship. He has the same Final Four as Parrish and Davis, so if you're on the fence about whether to choose Alabama or Michigan out of the East, this might be your sign to choose 'Bama.
An interesting pick is No. 10 Rutgers over No. 7 Clemson in the Midwest Region. Last year, the Scarlet Knights were headed toward their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991 when the pandemic halted the sports world.
It's clear Rutgers' veteran lineup is hungry after the cancellation of the 2020 event. This team is led by upperclassmen like junior guard Ron Harper Jr. and senior guards Jacob Young and Geo Baker, who want a taste of the tournament before they graduate. Bilas thinks Rutgers has been battle-tested in the Big Ten and that the Scarlet Knights are better for it.
Bilas also likes UC Santa Barbara over Creighton. Maybe the experts are on to something with that pick.
Villanova is consistently among the best teams in college basketball, but Bilas sees the No. 5 Wildcats upset in the first round by No. 12 Winthrop in the South Region. Villanova's best player, point guard Collin Gillespie, is out for the season with a torn MCL. It's a big blow to the Wildcats, but not the sole reason Bilas thinks they'll fall to the Eagles. He likes Winthrop's tempo and depth and the versatility of its lineup.
The way Bilas explains the matchup problems Winthrop could pose has me sold on the Eagles. It's always fun to see a double-digit seed take down a top team, and these picks provide some fun storylines to follow. His scouting eye comes through the way he breaks down these games. Surprise, intrigue and an undefeated run—this bracket has a bit of everything.
Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News
Sporting News' longtime college basketball writer chose a Final Four that looks similar to the other experts with one exception: He picked No. 4 Purdue to win the South Region. But like the others, he predicts Gonzaga will take home the title.
DeCourcy's bracket is light on upsets. He chooses No. 11 Syracuse, No. 11 Michigan State and No. 12 Georgetown to make it out of the first round, but for the most part, the high seeds advance.
No. 1 Baylor might be the heavy favorite, but DeCourcy thinks it bows out in the Sweet 16 to the Boilermakers. His rationale: "This is a young, developing team but appears to have landed in a bracket that can be conquered. The key will be whether young Jaden Ivey can continue his recent ascent toward stardom."
Ivey is important, but don't discount the contributions of forward Trevion Williams. He averages nearly a double-double per game with 15.6 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. The junior brings experience to a young lineup.
DeCourcy also picks No. 3 West Virginia to reach the Elite Eight in the Midwest Region. He's one of the few to take the Mountaineers over No. 2 Houston.
No love for the underdogs in this bracket. DeCourcy is mostly sticking with the favorites in each region with the exception of Purdue. The mid-majors in this tournament come with a lot of questions, but the Big Ten is one conference we don't need to question. Purdue may not be the favorite out of that region, but it's probably safe to pick most Big Ten teams to advance.
Pat Forde, Sports Illustrated
Forde's picks differ from the previous experts in several rounds, but the Final Four is familiar: Gonzaga, Alabama, Baylor and Illinois with the Bulldogs as the champions. He set up a Pac-12 battle in the West between No. 6 USC and No. 7 Oregon in the Sweet 16. The Trojans would have to get around No. 3 Kansas first. They might be known for their football prowess, while the Jayhawks are historically a basketball juggernaut, but the fun of March is seeing the balance of power shift.
If the Trojans can get by the Jayhawks, it will likely be because of freshman center Evan Mobley. An athletic big man, Mobley is projected to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft this summer. He's a mobile 7-footer who can handle the ball, score in a myriad of ways and body up in the post. He scored 26 points in back-to-back games in the Pac-12 tournament.
You might remember Trojans coach Andy Enfield from the 2013 tournament. Enfield led Florida Gulf Coast to a Sweet 16 appearance as a 15th seed, the first time in history a 15th seed had advanced that far. Big things were expected right away when Enfield went to Los Angeles to revive the program, but USC has won two NCAA tournament games in his eight seasons. Mobley could help Enfield recreate the magic of "Dunk City."
Bet on the Gauchos: Forde predicts they'll take down Virginia and Ohio and go all the way to the Sweet 16 before losing to Gonzaga.
But maybe the biggest upset in this bracket is in the East Region, where he picks No. 8 LSU to beat No. 1 Michigan in the second round. Forde then thinks LSU loses to Florida State in the Sweet 16.
He's not afraid to go against the grain and make some bold picks. In the South, Forde tabs No. 3 Arkansas over No. 2 Ohio State to get into the Elite Eight. In the Midwest, he puts San Diego State in the Elite Eight via a win over Houston.
There is no playing it safe in this bracket. It's a good mix of established teams with a few surprises. If you're looking for a bracket that doesn't lean on high seeds, take a look at Forde's. He favors some of the better defensive teams, like Alabama and San Diego State, but gives credit to teams on hot streaks, like Georgia Tech, the surprising winners of the ACC tournament.